Sambu 2022: Toxicological and teratogenic effect of various food additives: An updated review

BioMed Research International, vol. 2022 (6829409).

This is a review of some of the chemicals added to foods to improve shelf-life, color or taste, from the point of view of safety of the newborn.   The authors point out that other studies have already shown that food additives are implicated in asthma, ADHD, heart problems, cancer, and obesity.   Here, they are looking in detail at the teratology (effects on birth) of just a few of these additives, including:  sodium benzoate, aspartame, tartrazine (Yellow 5), carrageenan, potassium benzoate and excessive vitamin A.

Below are their conclusions:

  1. Sodium Benzoate (SB) (a preservative):
    • In the developing fetus, SB can interfere with genes required for blood clotting. 
    • In the fetus or premature newborn, SB can cause hemorrhage (bleeding), and tissue and eye damage.
    • SB releases histamine, leading to blood plasma leaking into the body tissue.
    • SB can cause craniofacial or jaw deformities in the newborn.
    • SB may be involved in the development of scoliosis and neural tube defects.
  2.  Potassium Benzoate (PB) (a preservative):
    • Even a low dose of PB can suppress DNA creation, and can cause chromosomal abnormalities, possibly related to a mutation in the OTX2 gene.
    • SB can cause bleeding in the embryo’s eye, as well as abnormal eye development.  This problem is dose dependent.
    • Adult mice given PB have no problem, but fetuses exposed to PB weigh less and are shorter at birth.
  3. Aspartame (a calorie-free sweetener):
    • In children, aspartame may cause neurological damage & obesity.
    • Its metabolites are toxic to many organs, but not too much is known about its effects when used during pregnancy.
    • The placenta concentrates (and doubles) amino acids, including the two amino acids making up aspartame — phenylalanine and aspartate.  This means the fetus is exposed to twice whatever the mother eats.  
    • Phenylalanine reduces protein synthesis in the brains of baby rats and mice.
    • Phenylalanine reduces myelin production during brain development.  (Myelin wraps and protects the nerves in the brain.)
    • The brain weight of the newborn is reduced.
    • If the mother is deficient in an enzyme needed to digest aspartame, they will have excessive levels of phenylalanine and be more likely to have birth defects.  
    • Aspartame eaten by the mother also degrades to methanol and formaldehyde which can cause DNA mutations, brain damage, growth retardation, and other abnormalities in her babies.
    • In chick embryos, all doses of aspartame caused abnormal brain formation, heart problems, tail degeneration, and leg abnormalities.
  4. Tartrazine (Yellow 5)
    • This is the most commonly used food dye (called E-102 in Europe).
    • Yellow 5 is known to cause liver toxicity and other problems at a high dose.
    • In the mother’s intestine, Yellow 5 becomes sulfanilic acid & aminopyrazolone.  These chemicals can damage the growing embryo.
    • Yellow 5 decreases mitochondrial respiration & changes mitochondrial membrane integrity, causing cell death.  (Mitochondria are the tiny energy factories of your cells.)
    • In studies on embryos, exposure to Yellow 5 caused increased embryo death, heart problems, and liver, kidney and spleen damage.  Ribs, vertebrae, hind legs, and other bone structures were deformed or missing.
  5. Carrageenan (a stabilizer):
    • This stabilizer is made from a natural, edible seaweed/algae.
    • It is used medically for wound coverings and medication delivery, and in food, it is used in many products, including ice cream and milkshakes.
    • Exposure by a very young fetus causes abnormalities of the neural tube and embryonic axis.
    • Carrageenan binds to cell surfaces, preventing regular cell activity.
    • Carrageenan breaks down into galactose, a sugar that is a teratogen (causes damage to the fetus).
  6. Vitamin A (when too much is consumed):
    • This vitamin is important for proper development, and is added to many foods.   It is also often used to treat skin problems, including skin cancers.
    • However, too much of this vitamin during pregnancy causes abnormal embryo organ development.
    • It can deform the skull, face, limbs, eyes, and central nervous system.
    • In all species studied, too much vitamin A caused central nervous system (CNS) abnormalities including microcephaly (small head), incomplete brain development, brain swelling, and a brain partially outside the skull.  Other possible defects include face nerve paralysis, jaw underdevelopment, cleft palate, deformed or missing ears, and deformed limbs.

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